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Suspect pleads not guilty in Vermont shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent

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(NEW YORK) — A 48-year-old man arrested in the Burlington, Vermont, shooting of three college students of Palestinian descent pleaded not guilty Monday to three counts second-degree attempted murder.

The suspect, Jason Eaton of Burlington, appeared in Vermont Superior Court via web conferencing and only spoke to introduce himself and enter his plea of “not guilty.”

Judge A. Gregory Rainville ordered Eaton to be held without bail.

Eaton was arrested Sunday night and charged in the shooting of college students Hisham Awartani, Kinnan Abdalhamid and Tahseen Ali Ahmed outside a residence in Burlington near the University of Vermont on Saturday.

A preliminary investigation by the Burlington Police Department determined the three students, all 20 years old, were shot outside the home of one of the victim’s relatives, who they were visiting for the Thanksgiving holiday, police said in a statement.

Monday’s arraignment came shortly after U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland made his first comments on the shooting, saying the Department of Justice is “closely monitoring” the case.

“All of us have also seen a sharp increase in the volume and frequency of threats against Jewish, Muslim and Arab communities across our country since October 7,” Garland said, referring to the date Hamas terrorists launched a deadly surprise attack against Israel and Israeli forces retaliated with a bombing campaign and ground operation in the Gaza Strip. “There is understandable fear in communities across the country, even as we speak, the ATF and the FBI are investigating the tragic shooting of three men of Palestinian descent in Vermont. That investigation, including whether this is a hate crime is ongoing.”

Garland said updates from law enforcement officials in Vermont will be coming “soon” and the Department of Justice is prepared to provide any assistance local officials need.

President Joe Biden was also briefed on the triple shooting. White House officials said he will continue to receive updates as law enforcement gathers more information.

The shooting occurred in front of the apartment building where Eaton lives, police said. After he was detained, officials were granted a search warrant, which was executed at his residence at about 9:53 p.m. Sunday, according to police.

“Evidence collected during that search warrant, and additional evidence developed during the course of this investigation, gave investigators and prosecutors probable cause to believe that Mr. Eaton perpetrated the shooting,” police said.

The students were shot after returning to one of their relative’s homes after going bowling, police said. Two of the victims were wearing kaffiyehs, or traditional Palestinian headscarves, when they were attacked, according to police.

A motive for the shooting remains under investigation, but Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad issued a statement Sunday: “In this charged moment, no one can look at this incident and not suspect that it may have been a hate-motivated crime.”

The FBI’s Albany field office said it is continuing to “actively investigate” the shooting in Burlington alongside the Burlington Police Department and other agencies.

“Our office has deployed numerous technical, forensic, and investigative resources in support of the investigation, to include victim services, and computer and cell phone analysis,” the FBI’s statement on X read. “We will bring all these resources to bear to determine any potential factors and motives and work with all parties involved to bring those responsible to justice.”

The students’ families identified them in a statement. Awartani is a student at Brown University in Rhode Island, Abdalhamid attends Haverford College in Pennsylvania and Ahmed is enrolled at Trinity College in Connecticut.

Their families issued a joint statement calling on law enforcement to conduct a thorough investigation, “including treating this as a hate crime.”

“As parents, we are devastated by the horrific news that our children were targeted and shot in Burlington, VT,” the victims’ families said. “At this time, our primary concern is their full recovery and that they receive the critical medical support they need to survive. We are extremely concerned about the safety and well-being of our children.”

ABC News’ Alex Mallin and Jianna Cousin contributed to this report.

 

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